Age wasn't about to stop Libyan-American Ibrahim Elfirjani from joining the fight to oust Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. So the 60-year-old owner of an auto repair shop left his home in Illinois and trekked to Libya to help the opposition on the frontlines of the conflict.
"I decided my birth country needs me today. … I'm an old man but I have energy to kick this dictator out," Elfirjani, of Orland Park, Ill., told msnbc.com by phone from Libya, during a stop near the Egyptian border to pick up communications equipment for the rebel fighters. "My heart is still young … 25 years old."
Elfirjani is one of an unknown number of Libyan-Americans who have journeyed home to join the fight against Gadhafi. While some have taken up weapons, others are helping in the humanitarian effort, working to create a transitional government or shuttling supplies to the rebels on the frontlines. Their participation comes with a risk: At least one Libyan-American man has been killed in the fighting.
"We do whatever we have to do to free our country," Elfirjani said, noting that he had evacuated women and children from the areas of fighting and armed himself with a Kalashnikov rifle for protection.
'We need our freedom'
He arrived in Libya from Egypt on Feb. 22 and was first in the key oil town of Ras Lanouf. But he was soon forced to retrace part of his travels as Gadhafi troops pushed the rebel forces eastward to the country's second largest city of Benghazi in mid-March. At one point, he recalled, a mortar hit the hood of the Land Rover he was riding in.
"For a second, I was waiting for my body and my car to go into pieces … but it never worked (detonated)," he said. "It just hit my car and fell to the ground."
The episode made him feel that he had been given a second chance, and vindicated his efforts in Libya.
"My birth country is always on my mind," he said. "We need our freedom."
Elfirjani was not alone in Libya: His son, Sanad, also traveled there to help with humanitarian efforts and communications. Though he did not join the fighting, he said he wished he had gotten the chance to, even though a blast at the Rajma base in Benghazi still haunts him.
"I really felt the explosion. I was one of the first people to be there responding to that," said Sanad, 27, an operation manager for an oil company who fled Libya with his mother and sister in 2003. "Seeing people dead everywhere, it was just unbelievable. You step on some body parts. It was very emotional. You think your own people have been killed this way."
He said that it was only later that he realized he had walked through "blood mud" — dirt mixed with blood — as he looked for survivors.
Sanad Elfirjani said he returned home after 10 days in Libya. He said that because his mother did not want to be alone, and since his father's experience as an ex-soldier in the Libyan military made him more useful to the rebels, he felt he had to return.
But strange as it seems, he now bemoans "the most stupid thing" — agreeing to leave — and says he wishes he had stayed.
"You feel like you are part of something that is actually going on," he said. "That was for me the most enjoyable time, even though it was hard and dangerous going to the frontlines."
'They go after the family'
Another Libyan-American from the Richmond, Va., area, Khalifa Hifter, was named late last week to lead the rebel army and left for the country two weeks ago, McClatchy Newspapers reported on Saturday.
"He made the decision he had to go inside Libya," Libyan activist Salem alHasi was quoted as saying of Hifter. "With his military experience, and with his strong relationship with officers on many levels of rank, he decided to go and see the possibility of participating in the military effort against Gadhafi."
At least one Libyan-American will not be returning from the front. Muhannad Bensadik, a 21-year-old born in Eden, N.C., was killed in the conflict on March 12. He spent most of his life in Libya, though he passed summers in the U.S.
Details of Bensadik's death are sparse. His mother, Suzi Elarabi, 41, said she doesn't know where her son died.
"He didn't even tell me he was close to the fire," she said in a phone interview from Martinsville, Va. "I was so worried. I know Muhannad, he would not rest until this is over and Gadhafi is out."
She learned from one of his friends that he had been shot and killed by Gadhafi forces, though the friend had few details about the incident. A cousin of Muhannad's later told her they had recovered his body and buried him in Libya.
Elarabi said she moved to the U.S. three years ago and was waiting for Muhannad to join her. She also has a 17-year-old son, Yousef, who was protesting in Benghazi but will travel to the U.S. next week. "I am afraid that something might happen to Yousef, too. They go after the family," she said, referring to Gadhafi's forces.
"I think he is a hero because a lot of people couldn't do what Muhannad did," she said, adding that she had received many emails from Libyans saying they were proud of him. "I'm trying to deal with it, it's very hard. Sometimes I am OK, sometimes I think about Muhannad when he was young, and all the things that passed, and start crying."
Others with loved ones who have returned to Libya to join the rebels face a different kind of torture.
Fathia Mahmoud ElHariri, 54, wife of Ibrahim Elfirjani, the auto shop owner, said she was proud of her husband and son Sanad, but was torn because she had already suffered through a long separation from her husband when he was forced into exile following Libya's war with Chad in the 1980s.
"Every day, I am crying for my country and my husband, my family," she said through a translator. "I don't want to go through this same tragedy again. … He left me before for 16 years."
She fled her home in Libya with simply a handbag, escaping with her children to Egypt before they reunited with Ibrahim in 2003.
"I wish we can go back to our country, all of the family is in Libya," she said. "It's like I am spending most of the time fighting life alone."
It's not just Libyan-Americans who are joining the effort to oust Gadhafi: A number of British-Libyans have also gone to the front, said Hassan Al-Amin, editor of online news website Libya Almostakbal, who is originally from Misrata.
"There are a few people who have gone back to Libya to Benghazi and there are some of them who went to the front. … there are even one or two actually who have been killed," he said.
Despite the risks, Libyan-American Sofyan Amry, a 25-year-old student and musician, left Chicago on Tuesday, bound for Egypt. Once there, he said he intended to hitch a ride with opposition fighters to Benghazi, where he planned to film the conflict and formation of a transitional government, and to help distribute video taken by others.
"Almost kind of like a 'Revolution 101,' how they did it, who were the leaders, interview the youth," he said of his mission, noting that he and others working with him also hope to live stream video over the Internet from the frontline using satellite modems.
Though he doesn't plan on taking up arms, he said, "I'll be more than willing to fight if I have to" in self-defense.
Amry said his parents were political dissidents who left Libya believing they would one day return, though his father died without setting foot in his homeland once more. He said his mother was excited about the prospect of moving to Libya — but had mixed emotions about his going there now.
"He never got to see this moment," he said of his father. "But, you know, there are still 7 million other Libyans who hopefully will live to enjoy it.
"I just feel like I can do something. … I have to do something."